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Israeli Lawmaker: Switch Settlement Freeze for Prisoner Release

Labor Party parliamentarian Hilik Bar sees “win-win” in unlikely change of plans

In order to jumpstart John Kerry’s peace mission last July, Israel agreed to release 104 security prisoners in four stages during the course of the allotted nine month period, a gesture vehemently opposed by Israelis across the political spectrum. With the final installment of 26 prisoners due within days, Israel’s opposition lawmakers have asked the prime minister to make a switch. The man behind the idea is now with us, Hilik Bar is a member of Israel’s Labor Party.

Bar was interviewed by The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.

TML:  The prisoner release angered Israelis from across the political divide, why is it a bad idea?

BAR: It’s a bad idea from the beginning. At the time that Israel first agreed to set free prisoners –terrorists actually — I and a lot of people in the Labor Party objected to [the plan] and we told the prime minister already then, that Israel should offer to do one of two gestures: either to freeze building in the settlements; or to release prisoners — who are actually terrorists. So, the right wing government did the absurd – it chose to not freeze the building of the settlements but instead to release prisoners. This is why we suggested to the prime minister to take back this gesture and exchange it with the gesture of freezing the building in the settlements, which is the one thing that is causing a lot of problems between us and the Palestinians.  Building in the settlements is one of the things that not the world, not Israel, and not — definitely not — the Palestinians is appreciating, to say the least. So we call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to not release any more prisoners, but to freeze the building in the settlements.

TML:  Have you gotten any reaction from the Prime Minister?

BAR:  Well, first I have to be honest and tell you that I sent him the letter only yesterday, late evening so you know, it’s not even a day; but no, I didn’t get any reaction, not publicly and not privately. I hope that the prime minister will react and will say that this is a good suggestion. If he does not reply, we will contact him again and demand to hear an answer from him.

TML:  What makes you think the Palestinians will accept the change of plans?

BAR:  Well, first you know, I’m an Israeli, I’m not a Palestinian, and I’m suggesting what I think is good for Israel. But I do think that it’s also good for the Palestinians because, I remind you again, that one of the things that the Palestinians care about the most is that Israel will not build any more in the settlements. So we released prisoners already three times. I think it will be a win-win situation also for the Palestinians if they will agree to not get the last group of prisoners, but to get a freeze of settlement building from the Israeli government [instead]. It will also be a huge achievement for the Palestinians. But again, I suggested it because I think it is for the benefit of Israel first, and its not necessarily hurting the negotiation between the two sides.

TML:  Hilik, with all due respect, the Palestinians have been very vocal in demanding that nothing prevent the last release. Officials have made promises to the families of prisoners and to the Palestinian people about bringing prisoners home. Isn’t it late to change the rules of the game?

BAR:  Yes, maybe it’s too late. But again, I’m looking at things from the Israeli perspective, seeing people in the right wing of Netanyahu, from Likud, like Danny Danon, and others threatening Netanyahu not to stay in the coalition or not to stay in the government. I can see a huge crisis in the coalition and inside the Likud and this is definitely not good for the Palestinians or for the negotiations. This is why I think that our suggestion is balanced: the Palestinians had an achievement [obtaining the release of 75 prisoners already — they can be happy about it — and now we can bring another achievement in having a freeze in settlement building. So it’s not perfect for the Palestinians but its much more than not getting any prisoners and not getting any freeze and this is actually where the Likud is going right now.

TML:  Have you run your suggestion by anyone on Secretary of State Kerry’s team?

BAR:  No, I didn’t consult with the Palestinians or with the Americans. I called all 120 members of the Knesset (parliament) together with my friend Omer Barlev; the both of us initiated it. I sent my letter to 120 members of Knesset to sign-on, and fifteen agreed.  It’s more than a tenth of the Knesset, both from the coalition and from opposition; from the Labor party and from Shas; and from [Justice Minister Tzipi] Livni’s Hatnuah party. Those who are joining me are those who are actually making the proposal, so I didn’t consult with anyone from the American State Department.

TML:  Well, do you believe there is any reason that Kerry would not oppose the move?

BAR:  I think that for the reasons I told you, Prime Minister Netanyahu or [President] Abbas should not, in my opinion, oppose the move. I don’t think that Kerry should oppose the move because, again, it was suggested to Israel from the beginning to choose between freezing [settlements] and releasing prisoners. We already completed at least 75% of the releasing, and right now to freeze the building of the settlements will save us embarrassment in front of the Americans. You know that the Americans are so angry about us every time they hear about new programs to build in the settlements. And then the Palestinians will receive it happily: I’m sure if President Abbas will be asked, he will say that freezing building in the settlements is a huge achievement for the Israeli government, and definitely for the Palestinians. And yes, of course it’s not perfect because they do want to have this portion of prisoners released, but you cannot get it all. And I think that our suggestion is balanced and it’s much more a win-win situation than not releasing the prisoners and not freezing the building in the settlements like what will probably happen if the Prime Minister or Secretary Kerry will not accept our suggestion.

TML:  Hilik Bar, we certainly cannot filter out the domestic politics of the Prime Minister, and your plan seems to suggest that Israel’s political right finds it less evil to ban building in the post-1967 communities than to release murderers. Yet, Israel has released many murderers before but they’ve never really halted all post ‘67 buildings…

BAR:  Well, actually, I talked with many many colleagues of mine from the right wing parties and I told them that I think that they should be the first persons to jump on this train because again, freezing buildings in the settlements can always be reversed and you can always continue to build settlements or houses in the settlements, but you cannot reverse releasing of terrorists that are responsible for Israelis being killed. By the way, when I say Israelis, I mean also Jews and Arabs and religious and not religious and all the terrorists are not defining one and the other. So I say to the right wing in Israel: objecting to my gesture, saying this is a problem and that we shouldn’t make any gesture – not to set free the forced group of terrorists and not to freeze the building — you know, you cannot have it all.  Just as I told you that the Palestinians cannot have it all, the right wing in Israel should understand that they cannot have it all, either, and this is why I think that our suggestion should be embraced by the political right wing in Israel, by the prime minister, and definitely also, even if it is surprising, by the Americans and the Palestinians. To tell you that I’m sure it will happen — probably not. But it will be a huge mistake.

TML:  Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday that he is willing to give Kerry extra time if he gets more prisoners released and Israel freezes settlement building. Do you have any support at all from the Palestinian officials on this suggestion of yours?

BAR:  No, I do not, and as you can see, this is the paradox. President Abbas wants both the freeze and the release of the prisoners; the right wing in Israel – which is controlling Israel — doesn’t want the [prisoner] release or the [settlement] freezing. You have to get somewhere in the middle and this is exactly what this suggestion is actually doing. So I didn’t consult with any Palestinians. I know there are Palestinians and even Israeli-Arabs who are not fond of this or do not like these suggestions, but if everybody is not fully happy about my suggestion it just means that it is the right decision.

TML:  Should Prime Minister Netanyahu go through with the release of the next 26 prisoners if the idea of substituting the building freeze is not accepted?

BAR:  Well, there is an agreement, so if the two sides continue to negotiate, Prime Minister Netanyahu should release the prisoners. I don’t think that this is a good thing to do, because I don’t think that any terrorist should ever get a prize, or should know that he will be imprisoned but he can be released if this and that political situation will happen. But Netanyahu committed to set free 104 Palestinians in exchange for negotiations, so if this negotiation will be continued by the Palestinians, Prime Minister Netanyahu will have to release them unless he’s taking our suggestion and switching this gesture with the gesture of freezing the building in the settlements.

TML:  What if Netanyahu ends up offering both the prisoners and a building freeze? What would be an appropriate counter-gesture by the Palestinians?

BAR:  I think that the Palestinians will have to seriously consider crossing the Rubicon on some issues that they are not crossing the Rubicon upon so far, like acknowledging that Israel is the home of the Jewish nation; finding some formula that will satisfy the Israelis and the Jewish people in Israel while not discriminating against the Arab population here. I think that if we will continue with gestures from the Israeli side, the Palestinians will have to say things that we’ve never heard before: to make some concessions, like on refugees and on the Jewish character of Israel respect for the minority, and this is something that the Palestinians didn’t do yet, and I expect them to do.

TML:  If Netanyahu or Kerry and Abbas reject your idea, what’s Plan “B”?

BAR:  Well, you know, as an opposition [politician] you’re always frustrated that you have what you think are good ideas, but they are not adopted by the government. So, of course if Kerry and Abbas and Netanyahu will reject our suggestion we will try to give good direction, good support to the negotiations. After all, the most important thing is that the two-state solution will happen; that we will have a final agreement, a final status agreement with the Palestinians. And we are willing to pay prices in Israel in order to do it, and one of prices is actually releasing prisoners. And you know, Israel did release a lot of prisoners just recently.

But we need and we want to believe that the Palestinians are also willing to make painful concessions. The left and center-left in Israel, and the caucus for the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, will continue to push to support Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We’re supporting Abbas no less than Netanyahu to continue and find the brave [path] and the courage to continue to walk the extra mile; to cross the Rubicon in order for us to have a two-state agreement solution, because 95% of the future agreement between us and the Palestinians is already known. It’s 5 to 10% of fine-tuning that we have to do.  But the matter now, the main issue, is leadership. When we had leaders in Israel and other enemy states, former enemy states, like Jordan and Egypt; when we had courage and leadership in both sides we did find agreements although it wasn’t easy at all. Right now, it looks like the leadership does not trust the other side, is not trusting the willingness and the inner truth or inner willingness of the other side to actually finish the conflict. The main problem now is leadership and being courageous. All of the other things are disposable, if you ask me.

TML:  Hilik Bar,  a Knesset member representing Israel’s Labor Party. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your plan with us.